Marketing Mary Jane

November 13, 2012

Boston.com

Last week’s election put many ballot measures into law across the nation. But perhaps none received more attention than the Washington and Colorado amendments that allow people over 21 to use and possess marijuana for recreational use.

Now that a once-illegal substance is being given the green light for sales to the over-21 set, it got me thinking: How does marketing come into play as it transitions from a controlled medical product to a recreational product? Specifically, can sellers change the mindset of those who still view it as a forbidden substance — and once they do, how will they set themselves apart from competitors?

A couple of major challenges immediately come to mind.

Socialization

No matter what side of the fence you’re on, there’s no denying the biggest challenge for those in the marijuana business is to convince people that it’s socially acceptable. Up until at least 2009, America waged war against marijuana. From “Just Say No” to “Above The Influencer,” hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into campaigns that  painted marijuana as the gateway to harder drugs. It was the seemingly innocent green villain. That’s a lot of history to overcome.

Just think: What would you do if you walked into your neighborhood gathering and Mr. Larson from down the street was toking up in the corner? Likely a bit of a shocker, right? The challenge for folks marketing marijuana will be making it mainstream. Not to encourage people to consume – although that’s likely an end goal – but rather to make it OK for those who are interested in partaking to not feel like public pariahs. That’s bound to be an uphill battle, at least for now.

It also will be interesting to see if health advocates take any stance on the issue. Remember, pot was first legaliized as a medical substance in these states. Will it still hold that position? Given the efforts to thwart tobacco use in this country, one can imagine there will be plenty of anti-marijuana campaigns based on health issues, as well.

Marketers will find it essential to reach influencers and continue to use the supporters of the statewide movements that got the amendments passed. Those groups that came out to support it need to stay involved to continue to sell it in. And showing the normalcy of the business — be it growers, storefronts or buyers — will be essential.

Commercialization

This is perhaps the most exciting part of the equation from a marketing perspective. Colorado and Washington are now faced with a new-to-the-market product — one with a base audience that’s been underground. Public facing businesses — growers, distributors, product extensions and more — are going to pop up quickly. They’ll have to create their own identities and help shape the identity of the product. So how do you set yourselves apart? Attributes, brand essence, pricing, availability, benefits? How about all of those and more.

Currently, marijuana sold at medicinal stores is marketed by product name and attributes. And while that makes sense for any product, I’ll be curious to see how brands develop and who takes the lead in their development. Will it be the mom-and-pop shops that develop a leading brand, or will the already established companies with solid marketing departments dominate? (Here’s an article from the American Bar Association discussing the legal prospects for marijuana-related franchise businesses.)

And whom do consumers want to buy from? My guess is current users would rather buy from the smaller businesses, while those new to the industry would feel safer trying an established company’s product. So there may be room for both. But either way, both will need to market to people inside and outside of their existing circles. Will it be direct to consumer or rely more on word-of-mouth at the beginning, given the mainstream stigma? It’s an interesting challenge and one that will need to be grounded in ample consumer research.

Peepshow readers? What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the marketers of Mary Jane?

Editor’s Note: No pony was high in the drafting of this post.